What You Can Achieve With a Personal Touch in Higher Ed

Higher Ed July 19 / Special / July 21, 2019

 – Thomas Mennella –

There is a set of myths that higher education has been telling itself for decades now: that all students will efficiently chart their own course through their curriculum, that higher learning is one size fits all, and that students and society will blindly value higher education and higher learning — for its own sake — in perpetuity. These myths, perhaps more than any other of higher education’s faults or missteps, carry with them the risk that cohorts upon cohorts of graduates will not have achieved the promise that a college degree offers: the promise of professional preparation for a successful career.  

A higher ed defender may ask, “How do we explain that colleges have turned out people who have put men in space, transplanted organs, discovered wonder drugs, and created amazing new technologies? Virtually every great achievement we see in our world around us was supported in some way by this education system. Where is the undeniable evidence that this is now an existential crisis?” Well, here’s the evidence:

    • As of 2008, 17 million college grads were in jobs that did not require a college degree;
    • In 2012, 1 in 3 college grads had a job that required a high school diploma or less;
    • More than 16,000 parking lot attendants, 83,000 bartenders, 115,000 janitors and 15% of all US taxi drivers have college degrees;
    • In 2011, 50% of college grads under 25 years old did not have a full-time job;
    • In 2012, 44% of recent college graduates were underemployed;
    • Of the 30 jobs projected to have the fastest growth through 2020, only 12 require a bachelor’s degree or higher;
    • Of tested students 36% demonstrated no significant improvement on the Collegiate Learning Assessment exam after four years of college;
    • In 2013, 56% of all surveyed employers believed that half or fewer college graduates had the skills and knowledge needed for success in their companies.
    • And this all comes at the cost of 44 million Americans holding over $1.5 trillion in student loan debt as of May 2018, with 8 million of those (holding $137 billion in debt) in default.

(All stats above are sourced from here, and referenced therein)

So yeah, students successfully finding their own way through higher ed, and emerging out the other end fully trained and prepared to enter the workforce is a myth. But what’s going wrong in higher ed and why?

The Missing Link?

In Eric Ngo’s article for EdSurge Independent, The Central Problem in Higher Education, he explicitly lays out the need for personalization in college.  He claims, “More focus should be given on how effective colleges are on their core mission: preparing students to become citizens that can thrive in the 21st-century world. In other words, the central issue of post-secondary education is quality.” After laying out a brief explanation of the general education philosophy of a typical college experience, where all students must take select courses from different areas to become well-rounded learners, Ngo calls this approach into question. “[General education’s] impact is highly questionable. The typical general education program only requires students to take a set of courses, each focusing on a narrowed subject, without any connection to one another. Worse yet, these courses are designed and taught separately by different professors, who don’t usually work with each other to connect these courses together. In other words, this type of curriculum lacks coherence.” Ngo notes that students see the general education requirement of their curriculum as a checklist — something to simply get through. And, I must admit, as a college academic advisor, I see and treat these courses the same way.  

In Challenges to Higher Education’s Most Essential Purposes, Kevin Guthrie holds a mirror up for higher education. He notes, “Not only do higher education institutions need to be able to effectively educate more students of color, more students of modest financial means, and first-generation students in response to changing demographics, they also need to be able to educate students at different stages of their careers.”

And Randy Best’s piece, for Academic Partnerships, entitled The Product is a Problem for Higher Education points out, “Students from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds are asked to fit into an educational template created nearly a millennium ago, which is often at odds with their needs and expectations of today. In fact, higher education’s product is designed for a traditional student, though 71 percent of all US post-secondary enrollments consists of non-traditional students.” And, more troublingly, “the majority of graduates will face employers who now believe that half or fewer of their applicants have ‘the skills and knowledge for advancement.’”

Students of different backgrounds, with different needs and with different ambitions, navigating through a confining system designed for a demographic that only 29% of all students fit, selecting courses with no coherence. And we’re scratching our heads wondering why college students aren’t prepared for employment and why society and employers no longer trust in the value of a college degree? REALLY?!

We Can Fix This

Where do we go from here? Ngo gets deep into the weeds for a solution when he offers that institutions should “facilitate a learning community, which prompts students to ‘synthesize different views, solve problems and collaboratively advance knowledge using the wealth and diversity of ideas that community members contribute’.” The 2019 Horizon Report takes a broader view by anticipating major changes in higher education, which include redesigning learning spaces and blended learning designs (in the short-term), advancing cultures of innovation in the mid-term and — in the long-term view — rethinking how institutions work. Obviously, these solutions are both complex and require full institutional support from college administrations. What can individual faculty members and instructors do to right these wrongs?

The ‘R’ Word

One simple concept unites Ngo’s ideas with the Horizon Report and offers the beginning of a solution out of our current quagmire — Relationships. Relationships between instructors and students foster personalized learning and mentorship. These relationships often begin in the classroom, but continue and blossom beyond those walls. Relationships between instructors and students allow both to collaborate on paths through the curriculum, to see the coherence between seemingly disparate courses and to have broader perspectives. Take, for example, the story of one of my own
students (‘Kiana’), who went from failing Genetics to getting an A- due to the relationship she and I were able to develop. I describe Kiana’s journey in this previous FLR article, and without that relationship, Kiana likely would not have been nearly as successful in her curriculum. Relationships inherently tailor a student’s education to their own needs since the instructor
knows the student and is aware of their needs. Relationships are the bedrock of learning communities. Relationships between instructors lead to cross-course collaboration and integration. And perhaps most importantly, skills in relationship-building and fostering could be the best training for a student’s productivity in society after graduation.  

There is a reason why only one element is featured prominently on the table of Global Elements for Effective Flipped Learning. That element is ‘R’ for positive relationships, and it underpins all that Flipped Learning has to offer. Positive relationships — between students, between educators, and between students and their teachers — is the foundation from which all successful learning begins. Without relationships, education is perfunctory, dry, passive and ineffectual (perhaps an apt description of much of higher education today). But with relationships, education comes alive for everyone involved in the process. Relationships, alone, cannot fix all of higher education’s current problems. Relationships, in and of themselves, are not a solution to any of the issues described above. But relationships can offer a starting point out of the problems we see ourselves facing today. And more importantly, fostering these relationships is something that each of us can do individually. For those of you who are interested in being part of a grassroots movement towards a better college education, give relationships a try. You will not fix all that’s broken, but you’ll prove the notion that college treats all students the same, and is one-size-fits-all, to be just a myth.

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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